Busytot is undergoing a bit of a language explosion at the moment. No longer content with a noun-based approach to the world -- simply naming things or asking for them -- he is delving into the exciting and versatile world of sentences. Verbs, adjectives, that sort of thing. I've turned into something of an amateur psycholinguist on the strength of it, spending my days marveling at what's going on inside that little head and taking copious notes on what comes out of his mouth. I'm filled with fellow-feeling for those patient souls who teach sign language to gorillas and chimpanzees and get to have wonderfully loopy conversations with them -- although, if Will Self's fine novel Great Apes is to be believed, what the animals are really trying to say is "Fuuuuuuuuck ooooooooooofffff!".
So what is going through Busytot's head these days? Well, yes, there is the occasional "Fuuuuuuuuck ooooooooooofffff" although it's more likely to be phrased as either a truculent adolescent "Nope!" or simply the slap slap slap of his feet as he runs away, flat-footed but surprisingly fleet. (By the way, whoever coined the phrase "pitter-patter of tiny feet" must have been on only the most nodding acquaintance with children. They certainly didn't live downstairs from us. I suspect they only knew very svelte toddlers or were thinking of cats).
But it's not all negativity in our little monkey house, thank goodness. The cosmic "wow" is still there, although these days it comes out as "Oh-KAY!" or "All RIGHT!" or "YAY!" accompanied by a burst of applause; the pitter-patter of little hands. He's also starting sentences with "want a" (moon, dog, sausage, yoghurt, paint a picture, etc). Sometimes I think of toddlers as pocket zen masters, posing unanswerable koans and boggling the adult mind with their wacky tangents. Among this week's surreal utterances, for example, my favourite was "noisy ice-cream, noisy ice-cream" -- sheer poetry, that; it scans in a thudding Kipling sort of way, and I like that sibilant internal rhyme. Other times, the rising two-year-old seems like an emissary from central marketing: bugger Buddhism, none of this nothingness nonsense -- embrace desire! Love longing! Want until you can't want no more... and then want some more.
On the way out of the city on a drive up to Providence last weekend, we passed an extraordinary sight: a vast parking lot filled with row after row of iconic yellow American schoolbuses. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Phalanxes of the things. Busytot loves schoolbuses only slightly less than garbage trucks, which is to say he would like to be one if at all possible, or, failing that, marry one and live happily ever after. "Wow! Look at all the schoolbuses!" I hollered helpfully, thinking that if one bus constitutes bliss, ten thousand schoolbuses would surely short-circuit his brain and leave him slumped post-coitally in his carseat for the remaining three hours of the trip. He noted the gleaming yellow vehicles stretching to the horizon, nodded politely, and instantly demanded "More coolbus?"
I secretly thrill to this unbridled appetite. I think Avaricious (rhymes with Aloysius) would be a lovely name for a child. It's not just a hunger for things, but a lust for life. The friends we stayed with in Providence live right on the water, and on the first day, Busytot strode down the boat-ramp to throw rocks into the water, and then commenced stripping off his clothes, with commentary – "top off, trousers off, nappy off!" Nude and goose-pimpled, he waded into the chilly sea like a mini Reginald Perrin, saying that he was off to "blow bubbles." Out of respect for his (literally) naked enthusiasm, I resisted saying that it would have been prudent to smear oneself with whale-fat and, oh yes, learn to swim first. The back-to-nature vibe wore off pretty quickly though: on the second morning, I pointed out the window and said "See Gerry's boat?" Our thoroughly urban child glanced skeptically at this unfamiliar treat, then countered with an inquiry of his own: "See Daddy's garbage truck?"
Ah, the ubiquitous urban garbage truck. What would we do without it? If a two-year-old is having a bad day, there's always a thrilling garbage truck somewhere on the block ready to provide distraction. And conversely, if a sanitation worker is having a bad day, there's always a two-year-old on the next corner rolling out the red carpet and waving an autograph book. There is a fine picture book about a garbage truck (although not about the people who drive it, alas): it's called, uncompromisingly, I Stink, and I bet it sells like hotcakes in this city. It's on my wish-list, but in the meantime we make do with Richard Scarry's epic Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, with its tankers and taxis and tricycles interspersed with bananamobiles and pickle cars.
I don't know whether Busytot has figured out the connection between the marks on the page and the remarkably consistent stories we tell about the same pictures – and for the record, let me note that after approximately twelve consecutive renditions in the car on the way to Providence, I do not like Green Eggs and Ham. But he knows what to do with books, even the kind with no pictures. The other day he swiped my current recreational reading from the bedside table (Nobody's Perfect, a big fat book of deviously witty film reviews and essays by New Yorker writer Anthony Lane), opened it to a random page, and, stabbing his finger at the words, recited "Ubba dubba dubba dubba dubba" before snapping the book shut with a happy "Eee End!"
Which reminds me -- one correspondent asked what literatures I compare, seeing as how I'm doing a degree in Comparative Literature. Good question, although the thing is, we don't really compare the literature as such. That innocent little adjective makes it sound like we're running a weekly pool ("Portuguese poetry odds-on to win the non-prose division this week") or indulging in elaborate measurements and computations, like literary phrenology ("Definitively, Russians are the biggest, but the French have an impressive bump of immorality"). Think of it instead as literature without borders: much of the field would happily do away with the adjective and just study "Literature," except that we're just as likely to be writing about film, or drama, or historical documents, as fiction. That said, I have ended up doing a classically comparative project, looking at the Pacific War as described by New Zealand, American, Papua New Guinean, and Japanese writers, among others. I've just finished a chapter on the first Papua New Guinean novel, Vincent Eri's The Crocodile, and am launching back into a half-done chapter on good old James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. Then I just have to tidy up the introduction and do all the ghastly footnoting, proofreading, and compiling the bibliography. It's a big, big project and the closer I get to the end the slower it seems to go. Believe me, there will be a loud chorus of "YAY!" in this house the day I type "Eee End."